With great speed they urged on their horses, kicking op thick clouds of dust. It had not been an easy decision, leaving Camelot, leaving their queen in the lurch, locked in a dungeon, but there was no other option. The last remaining Knights of Camelot had fled, hoping to raise an army and retake Camelot one day soon. With pain in their hearts they had to abandon her, hoping she would still be alive when they would eventually return. “No use getting ourselves killed,” they had said, “better to flee now and regroup,” and so they rode on knowing full well they had broken their chivalric code, broken their oath to Arthur and Camelot and to the Round Table. They felt their hearts grieving and their eyes crying, and they all recalled the moment when they had so stealthily fled.
Earlier that day
“Have you all gone mad?” Gareth shouted, “Running away just like that, leaving our Queen behind?” His whole body quivered with rage, his hand gripped the hilt of his sword, ready to strike any moment as he looked with contempt at the four other Knights assembled at the postern gate, deep within the walls of Camelot and as yet undiscovered by the Saxons.
“Will you keep your voice down,” Gaharis whispered angrily, “Saxons have ears, you know!”
“The let them come, I say, let them come!”
“So what do you suggest, Gareth, stay here and get killed too?”
“Gaharis is right,” said Lamorak, “we can’t stay here, there are far too many Saxons for us to handle. We must leave Camelot and find reinforcements, raise an army. Only then may we be able to drive the Saxons away and retake Camelot and---“
“NO, it is wrong!” Gareth interrupted, “This goes against anything we have been taught, everything we Knights stand for, or had you conveniently forgotten that, SIR Lamorak?”
“I will never forget that, and one more remark like that…” whispered Lamorak through clenched teeth as he unsheathed his sword just a little bit. The air was heavy with tension as Gareth and Lamorak were all but ready to fight each other.
“We swore an oath, remember? An oath, a Knight’s Oath, to protect Camelot, the King, the Queen.”
“We all understand that, Gareth,” said Kay, trying to ease the tension, “and it pains us that we can’t uphold our code at this moment, but you must understand too that the best way to protect our queen is to go and find as many allies as possible. We can’t fight those Saxons alone, Gareth.”
“There are hundreds of them and only a handful of us. Use your head, Gareth, have you seen the courtyard lately? There are dead knights everywhere, Gareth, dead! And all of them died because they tried protecting our queen, defending our Camelot. And they were all killed, every last one of them. As much as it pains me to say this, but we can’t win this by ourselves, we have no choice but to go and find help.” Lamorak took Gareth by his shoulders and looked him in the eyes, pleading with his common sense.
“And if they really wanted to kill our queen, they would have done so already,” said Ywain. He had kept silent until now, being the youngest and the least experienced of them. “They will keep her alive for ransoming, I’m sure of it.”
“We have sworn to protect our queen,” Gareth said stubbornly, as if he was reciting a personal litany, “what you’re proposing is nothing short of treason. What would king Arthur say if he heard you talking like this? Do you think he would run away like an old maid?”
A sudden flash and the tip of Lamorak’s sword pressed into Gareht’s throat.
“Don’t, Lamorak, hasn’t there been enough killing?” said Kay as he took a step forwards.
“Do not speak to me of Arthur like that.” Lamorak’s words sounded grim and harsh, his eyes cold as steel. Slowly he lowered his sword and sheathed it again, keeping his eyes on Gareth all the time. Gareth touched his throat and felt droplets of blood on his fingers, felt them trickling down.
“So,” Kay said, “it’s either the five of us go, or it’s four. Your choice, Gareth, you can stay here and be heroically killed, or you can join us and---” Kay raised his hand and whispered: “Keep still, someone is coming.”
They all heard the sound of footfalls now, getting louder with every step. A shadow could be seen on the wall, and seconds later a limping figure came into view. Five razor-sharp swords were pointing at his chest.
“Roland,” Kay said, heaving a sigh of immense relief, “you’re still alive!” And the knights sheathed their swords. “What happened to you?”
“Those Saxon animals, Sir,” Roland, squire to Sir Kay, said with some difficulty, “they were having some fun with us squires, but that is not important now. All is ready, as we agreed.” And Roland tried to steady himself against the wall. One of his eyes was black and swollen shut, and blood still seeped from the strips of cloth bound on his wounded arms and legs. “There are horses waiting for you in the woods, I don’t think those Saxon animals noticed anything, it took us all night to get them there…” He faltered, closed his eyes and took a deep breath and groaned, as he was in great pain. “Broken ribs, I think, Sir Kay, nothing to worry about. But Aiden was not so lucky. Those animals caught him in the courtyard and they… and they… they broke his arms and kicked him about. I don’t think he’s alive anymore,” Roland stifled a sob, “and I couldn’t get to him, I’m really sorry, Sir Gaharis,” for Aiden was, or better had been, Sir Gaharis’ squire.
“You did well, Roland,” Gaharis said quietly, his voice unnaturally calm, vowing to avenge his squire.
“Any word on our queen?” Lamorak asked.
Roland nodded. “Still in the dungeons, Sir Lamorak, I’ve heard our queen is not hurt very much.”
“As we agreed?” came the strangled voice of Gareth, “as we agreed?”
“Good,” Lamorak said without bothering to answer Gareth, and he grabbed Roland’s shoulders, “I, we, have a task for you, Roland, an important one, and a dangerous one. Try to keep an eye on our queen, try to get some food to her, even if it means siding with those heinous Saxons, Offer your services to them if need be, but remember: you’re only doing this to save our queen, save Camelot.”
Gareth stood there seething, barely able to contain himself, hands opening and closing, as if he was trying to strangle someone.
“Now go, Roland, and be brave!” And Roland limped away as fast as he could. “And as for you, my dear Gareth,” Lamorak continued as he turned towards the enraged knight, “we did talk about this earlier this week, but you chose to furiously leave the room. Now let me make this simple for you: either you’re with us or against us. There are horses waiting, and those Saxon animals are still dead drunk from last night, going away undetected shouldn’t prove too difficult. You can come with us now or stay behind, at this moment I really don’t care.” With these words he turned his back on Gareth, opened the postern gate and ran as fast as he could to the edge of the forest. No Saxon arrow pierced his body, no warning bell sounded. He looked around and saw Gareth running behind the other three knights. “Good, a wise choice.”
Gareth kept silent. Suddenly they heard bells tolling. “I guess someone saw us after all,” Ywain said as they disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
And so, with ever increasing rapidity, they urged on their horses, those last Knights of Camelot: Kay, the brothers Gaheris and Gareth, Ywain and Lamorak, hoping to find a kingdom still bound by friendship to Camelot and not overrun by the Saxons, and on their flight they passed many a village razed to the ground; and the stench of burned flesh and rotting corpses lingered in their noses by day, the images of maimed women and children haunted them at night.
To be continued...